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Overview of Persuasive Format

  What I call "persuasive format" is a standard approach to argumentation based on ancient Greek theories of rhetoric.  Effective argumentation involves more than just straightforward presentation of your own views on a particular topic, as in the typical "five-paragraph theme," for instance.  The most effective argumentation involves a more sophisticated and comprehensive approach to the topic in the attempt genuinely to persuade someone who disagrees with you on a particular issue—to convince your opponent to agree with you, not just hear what you think about the issue.

In the persuasive format, the introduction should introduce the issue, but not your viewpoint on the issue.  The introduction should not present a thesis statement, but offer instead neutral presentation of a specific question that the rest of the paper will endeavor to answer.  In place of a thesis statement, the intro should culminate in a literal question at the end of the paragraph—an interrogative sentence ending with a question mark.  It may be different from how you've written essays in the past, but after reading only the introduction, the reader should be unable to tell which side of the argument you will take in the body of the paper.

The purpose of this introduction is to inform the reader of the central focus of your essay without revealing your viewpoint.  An effective introduction also engages the reader's interest and suggests why the issue deserves thoughtful consideration.  The introduction should end in the raising of a specific literal question—a sentence ending with a question mark.

For example: In an essay arguing the (important) issue of whether Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron is the greatest baseball player of all time, an appropriate central question might be, "Who was the better ballplayer, Ruth or Aaron?" or, "Who is the greatest baseball player of all time?"

Common ground is a good way to begin the introduction.  Common ground points out truths, however general, that proponents of all sides of an argument can accept.  Common ground provides neutral statements that are essentially incontrovertible—for example, historical background, hard facts, or neutral generalizations about the subject you are addressing. 

The purpose of "common ground" is to build the reader's trust in you as a thoughtful, reasonable person, someone worth listening to.  Common ground can also help establish "points of agreement" between opposing sides, thereby starting off the argument in a positive mode where you and your opponents are in agreement initially.

For example: In the hypothetical essay about baseball's all-time greatest player, common ground might be established in any of the following sentences:

1) Aaron and Ruth were both outstanding ballplayers.  [Historical fact]

2) Aaron hit 755 career home runs, and Ruth hit 714.  [Fact]

3) Baseball is a difficult game to play.  [Neutral generalization—or fact]
4) In some ways, the game of baseball changed between Ruth's day and Aaron's; in other ways, baseball is still essentially the same today as it was when Ruth played.  [Neutral generalization—or fact]

bullet After raising the central question in the introduction, begin the body of the essay by presenting and explaining the opposing views (viewpoints opposed to your own)—here you acknowledge and explain the most likely reasonable arguments against your own beliefs on the issue.  Basically, here you argue against your own point of view and explain the other side of the argument, fairly and completely.  The opposing views may be one paragraph or several, depending on how many different opposing views there are.  Each paragraph of the opposing views should answer the introduction's central question directly in its topic sentence.
The purpose of the "opposing views" is to show that you have thought about the issue in some depth and understand the other side of the argument, also to head off possible objections by the skeptical reader before they can be raised against you.

For example: If you think Aaron was the better ballplayer, the opposing view would be, obviously, that Ruth was better.  So the topic sentence for the opposing viewpoint might be, "Many argue that Babe Ruth is the best baseball player ever, because he was not only a great slugger but an outstanding pitcher as well."  Or if your intro raises the more general question, "Who is the greatest player ever?" and Aaron is your first choice, you might have two or three different opposing views paragraphs, one explaining why some consider Ruth the best, another explaining why some might vote for Barry Bonds, and maybe a third making a case for Willie Mays or Ted Williams.

The topic sentences of opposing views paragraphs (usually the first sentence of any body paragraph) should be direct in answering the central question, but should always qualify that the opposing viewpoint is not necessarily your ownthrough such qualifying expressions as "Many feel that . . . ," "Some people think . . . ," or "One common view is that. . . ." So in our fascinating and important baseball essay, if you think Babe Ruth is the greatest player, an opposing view topic sentence might be "Some would argue that Barry Bonds is the single greatest baseball player ever" or "A great many consider Hank Aaron the greatest ever to play the game."

bullet Refutation of the opposing views comes next: here you suggest why your opponents' views are not the right ones, at least from your perspective.  Depending on the number and quality of the opposing views, it may be appropriate to discount or refute each of these views individually as you present them in the same paragraphs, or it may work better to present opposing views in different paragraphs and then refute them collectively in a separate paragraph of transition as you move into your own views on the issue. 

Sometimes in conjunction with refutation you might offer transitional concession, where you acknowledge that the opposing views have some merit . . . but then you turn around and explain why the opposition does not provide the best answer to the question at issue.
The purpose of refuting opposing views is obvious: here you attempt to show those who disagree with you why their ideas do not provide the best answer to the central question raised in the introduction.

For example: You might concede, "Yes, there is no denying that Babe Ruth was an all-time great player, on the mound and at the plate," and offer refutation by saying, "but the truth is, the fact that Ruth was so out of shape later in his career probably kept him from achieving even more than he did.  In some ways, great as he was, Ruth's poor conditioning kept him from realizing his true potential. As talented as Babe Ruth was, it is unlikely that the single greatest ballplayer of all time would be so thoroughly out of shape as 'the Babe' was for so much of his career."

bullet  Your views, of course, present your side of the issue.  Here is the heart of your argument: here you elaborate the most significant points in support of your overall viewpoint, the most logical and effective reasons you can muster to persuade the "other side" to agree with you.  Your views will usually be developed in several paragraphs, each asserting a different main point which answers the central question directly in its topic sentence: "Henry Aaron was the greatest of all time because he . . . ," for example.  Your views could be identical to the three body paragraphs in the "five-paragraph theme."  Ultimately, your views should build to a conclusion that offers the natural culmination of all previous discussion.  The conclusion should contain your thesis, the crowning single-sentence statement that sums up your overall view on the issue.  The thesis should be the strongest, fullest, most direct answer to the primary question posed in the introduction.
For example: You might develop three paragraphs of your views: 1) the first explaining that Aaron not only hit more home runs than Ruth but also scored more runs and drove in more runs (RBIs) than any other player in history; 2) the second explaining that Aaron was a better defensive fielder and stole more bases; and 3) the third explaining that while Aaron's numbers speak for themselves, he has never received his just due as the game's greatest ever because of lingering racial prejudice—he received hate mail long after breaking Ruth's home run record, the media have only recently begun to consider him fairly and objectively, etc.

Your thesis, stated in the conclusion, might then be, "Ultimately, Henry Aaron is the greatest baseball player of all time because he was a better all-round hitter and a better player in the field and on the base paths than Babe Ruth was; only racial prejudice has kept the obvious from being obvious to everyone until now: Hammerin' Hank Aaron is the greatest ever to play the game."